With the regular season winding down, it was almost impossible to get a handle on these Flyers. They are so different from the Mike Richards-captained teams of the last few years, so different even from the team with wobbly goaltending that sputtered through January and February.
Could they contend without captain and lead instigator Chris Pronger?
Has Ilya Bryzgalov fully emerged from exile in his inner Siberia to be the shutdown goalie of the last couple of weeks?
Can Danny Briere snap out of his post-concussion scoring drought and be the playoff sniper of recent springs?
Will all these new elements combine for the right kind of chemistry to create a deep playoff run?
This game was encouraging on a number of fronts. First, Bryzgalov was terrific. The Penguins took a 2-0 lead due to power-play chances and some awful play by the Flyers' injury-depleted defense. But Bryzgalov made some huge saves. He especially frustrated Sidney Crosby, who was denied on a couple of very good scoring opportunities.
Just as important, though, the Flyers found the switch after what coach Peter Laviolette kindly described as a "sleepy" second period. They tapped into a sense of desperation, of urgency, and got just the response necessary to win playoff games.
"We knew they were the hottest team in the NHL," Jaromir Jagr said. "We knew if we were to lose this game, it would be kind of tough to come back and finish first in our division or conference. It was like Game 7 for us. We have to win that game no matter what if we have a chance to still finish first."
Hartnell was the one who switched it all around, who turned the Flyers from "the bug," as Laviolette put it, into "the windshield." He did it by scoring a goal from an odd angle (made possible by Claude Giroux's savvy pass). Mostly he did it by infuriating the Penguins every moment he was on the ice.
"I think the extracurricular stuff was the turning point in the game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It was a situation where they targeted players after the whistle and didn't get penalized for it, and I think that allowed them to get back in the game."
Hartnell was in the middle of it all. He got into a scrape with defenseman Kris Letang. At one point, after the equally irritating Evgeny Malkin stayed down with an apparent injury, four Penguins converged on Hartnell. He wound up sitting on the ice, helmetless and abraded and laughing as if he were having the time of his life.
Actually, he probably was.
"It was a physical match," Hartnell said. "It was a big confidence boost for everyone in here. Malkin took a couple of penalties. He's good for a couple of those a game if you hit him and play him tight."
With Crosby back, the Penguins suddenly are No. 4 with a bullet in the East, hurtling toward the top of the standings with 11 wins in a row. The Flyers ended that streak and kept alive their own chances for the top seed.
The two will play each other twice more, both times in Pittsburgh, including the final game of the regular season. It will surprise no one if they begin a first-round playoff series against each other a few days later.
If so, it will begin without the usual feeling-out game or two. There already are scores to be settled. The blood already is high.
"It's what it's all about - playoff hockey," Hartnell said. "If it's first round, we've got to go through Pittsburgh, or if it's second round or third round, it doesn't really matter. This team is going to be right there at the end. First round, we'll take them on with open arms and try to beat them in a seven-game series."
Put yourself in the Penguins' spot. After putting up with his provocations, who would be the worst possible person to beat them on a shot with 0.9 seconds remaining on the clock?
Mark Hartnell down.
Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at go.philly.com/philabuster
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